The United States is one of only two countries to allow direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs, and that, according to a study, may lead people to request drugs they don’t need.

The study, “Creating Demand for Prescription Drugs: A Content Analysis of Television Direct-To-Consumer Advertising,” funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published in the January/February issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, examined 38 unique TV ads for drugs that address ailments ranging from high blood pressure to depression to insomnia.

What the study authors found is that such ads rely on emotional appeals instead of education.

“We’re seeing a dramatization of health problems that many people used to manage without
prescription drugs,” said Dominick L. Frosch, Ph.D., lead author of the study and an assistant
professor of general internal medicine and health services research at UCLA. “The DTC ads send the message that you need drugs to manage these problems, and that without medication your life will be less enjoyable, more painful and maybe even out of control.”

Proponents of such ads say that DTCA educates people about health conditions and available
treatments. They also say the ads empower consumers to become more active participants in their own care, thereby strengthening the health care system.

The published study says the ads possess these characteristics:

  • Eighty-two percent made some factual claims and made rational arguments (86 percent) for
    product use.
  • Only one-quarter described condition causes (26 percent), risk factors (26 percent) or
    prevalence (25 percent).
  • Emotional appeals were almost universal, appearing in 95 percent of the ads.
  • The ads failed to mention lifestyle change as an alternative to products, though 19 percent
    portrayed it as an adjunct to medication. And 18 percent portrayed lifestyle changes as
    insufficient for controlling a condition.
  • The ads often framed a medication’s use in terms of losing (58 percent) and regaining control (85 percent) over some aspect of life, and 78 percent portrayed it as engendering social approval.

To read the article and find out more information, visit www.amfammed.org and click on the January/February 2007 issue.